WASHINGTON (TBEN SF / TBEN) – California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a fierce and vocal critic of the former Trump administration, began two days of contentious Senate hearings on Tuesday as President Joe Biden’s candidate for the post of Secretary of Health.
Over the Trump years, Becerra has filed dozens and dozens of lawsuits against administration policies ranging from immigration to the environment.
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Republicans describe him as unfit, but Democrats are unfazed, accusing the GOP of playing politics despite the coronavirus pandemic.
Becerra will be grilled by two panels. Tuesday is the turn of the health committee, followed on Wednesday by the finance committee, which will vote on sending Becerra’s nomination to the Senate.
If confirmed, he would be the first Latino to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, a $ 1.4 trillion agency with a large portfolio that includes health insurance programs, safety and approvals. medicines, advanced medical research and children’s well-being.
In her opening statement, Becerra said it was clear the coronavirus pandemic would be her top priority if confirmed.
“The president has ambitious goals – 100 million vaccines injected into guns in his first 100 days, increasing access to testing, sequencing the virus so we are prepared for the variants, and reopening schools and businesses. HHS has a central role in achieving these goals – safely and fairly, ”he told the health committee.
But Ranking Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina leaves no doubt that Becerra faces a tough road to winning GOP support.
“I’m not sold yet,” Burr said, looking at the candidate. “I’m not sure you have the experience or skills to do this job at this time.” In his opening statement, Burr questioned whether Becerra respects the role private companies, and in particular pharmaceutical companies, play in delivering innovations that benefit patients.
Becerra, 63, represented the Hispanic neighborhoods of Los Angeles in the United States House for over 20 years before becoming her state’s law enforcement chief, succeeding Vice President Kamala Harris after having won the election to the Senate. His politics are liberal but his style is low-key and oriented towards problem solving. As a member of Congress, he played a behind-the-scenes role in leading President Barack Obama’s healthcare law through democratic divisions in the House.
The Republican opposition grew stronger ahead of its nomination hearings. On Monday, Senators John Kennedy of Louisiana and Tom Cotton of Arkansas released a letter asking Biden to withdraw the nomination, calling Becerra “unfit for any position of public trust.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called him a “well-known supporter.” And the political group Heritage Action for America has launched a cable and digital advertising campaign against Becerra.
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Republicans say Becerra is a radical supporter of socialized medicine, abortion and restrictions on religious freedom and has no medical background.
Democrats shrug their shoulders.
Republicans “are just getting agitated,” Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden of Oregon said Monday. “They have done their best to try to find something that could accommodate their opposition, but there is no ‘there’ there.
During a White House briefing, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Becerra was part of the team Biden needed to execute his COVID-19 response plan.
The pandemic is expected to dominate questioning at Tuesday’s hearing on health, education, work and pensions. Senators from both sides want to know the administration’s timetable for a return to near-normality, the progress of the vaccination campaign, the prospects for reopening schools and the threat of more aggressive viral mutations.
Becerra is expected to use as much time as possible to advance Biden’s $ 1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan, which is on track for passage in the House but faces major political and procedural challenges in the Senate.
In many ways, Becerra was the first face of California’s opposition to the Trump administration. He was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown to replace Harris and took over as attorney general in early 2017 when Trump became president.
In four years, he filed 124 lawsuits, challenging the Trump administration over immigration, environment and health policies. His litigious character and vocal resistance to Trump’s policies could allow Republicans to portray him as an overly partisan figure. California was proud to see itself as resistance to Trump, and Becerra embodied that philosophy.
Democrats say he’s not outside the mainstream of their party, which strongly supports women’s access to abortion, and where single-payer government-run healthcare for all remains a stance popular politics, although Biden has made it clear that he does not support it.
Lack of medical experience does not disqualify a candidate for the post of HHS secretary, although that can be a plus. Recent secretaries included a doctor, but also a pharmaceutical executive, a White House budget manager and three governors.
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The response to the Biden pandemic is coordinated from the White House. While Becerra would be an important player, the administrative decision-making structure is already in place. Becerra is expected to play a central role in broader health care policy issues, such as extending insurance coverage and trying to reduce prescription drug costs.